TECHNIQUE

Hand-rearing Oryctolagus cuniculus - European rabbits
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Summary Information

Type of technique Health & Management / Mammal Husbandry and Management / Techniques:
Synonyms and Keywords N.B. This information should be read in association with Rearing of Mammals (Mammal Husbandry and Management) and Hand-rearing of Orphaned Wildlife. These pages contains background information together with links to the Electronic Library and Organisations. The related Species pages contain similar linkages.
Description This page has been prepared for the "Rabbits and their Relatives: Health and Management" Wildpro volume, and is designed for the needs of Oryctolagus cuniculus - European rabbit and Oryctolagus cuniculus domesticus - Domestic rabbit

These species are within the family Leporidae.

  • Lagomorphs are not considered easy to hand-rear. (B156.12.w12)
  • Fully-furred young rabbits found outside are probably already eating grass and other vegetation. 
  • Note: with wild infants, it is important to make sure that the youngster has been identified correctly, as furred young Lepus spp. leverets of about the same size are neonates still dependent on their mother's milk. See Rearing of Mammals (Mammal Husbandry and Management)

Initial Care: 

General mammal information: 

  • On arrival any young mammal should be weighed, warmed (not too quickly if severely chilled), stimulated to urinate/defecate and given supplementary fluids by an appropriate route to counteract dehydration. 
  • The age should be determined if possible. (See individual species information pages, sections "Appearance - Neonate" and "Life Stages - Reproductive stages").
  • The first feed given should be an oral rehydration (electrolyte) solution (e.g. Lectade, Pfizer Limited), with a gradual changeover to a milk substitute over several feeds.
  • See: Hand Rearing of Orphaned Wildlife for further general information. for further general information.

General Care (including warmth and hygiene):

General mammal information

  • Young mammals have poor ability to maintain body temperature and are prone to hypothermia, hyperthermia and burns, particularly when unfurred or only sparsely furred.
  • Keep out of draughts but ensure ventilation is adequate.
  • Provide a temperature range, e.g. by heating one end of the container more than the other, which, while not allowing either overheating or chilling, permits the animal to chose the position at which it feels most comfortable.
  • The container used should be sufficiently large to allow the occupant to move into a comfortable position.
  • The sides of the container should be sufficiently high to prevent the occupant falling out.
  • Bedding materials should be soft, comfortable and either disposable or easily washed. They should keep the animal dry and be changed as frequently as necessary to prevent soiling.
  • (B194, P3.1987.w5, V.w5)

Rabbit specific information:

  • Keep warm and dry. (B600.3.w3)
  • Provide bedding material which can be burrowed into, such as shredded tissue paper or kitchen roll on top of hay in a small box. (B600.3.w3)
  • House in a small box lined with hay and rabbit fur (if available) or with soft tissues, cotton rags or fleece veterinary bedding material. (B601.1.w1, B606.6.w6)
  • Initially a high-sided or lidded box (with appropriate ventilation) is suitable. (W730.Dec08.w1)
    • Line with a towel, with hay on top of this. (W730.Dec08.w1)
    • If the mother's pulled hair is available, this can be used to line the nest for hand-rearing. (W730.Dec08.w1)
    • Change the bedding daily or as required due to soiling. (W730.Dec08.w1)
  • Cover the box with a wire screen to ensure the orphans cannot jump out. (B196)
  • Heat:
    • Provide heat initially. (W730.Dec08.w1)
    • Keep young kits at 27 - 30 C (80.6 - 86 F) initially (B601.1.w1, B606.6.w6), initially (first week) an ambient temperature of 26.7 - 29.4 C (80 - 85 F). (B338.1.w1)
    • If the kits are healthy and thriving, gradually reduce the heat after the first week (B601.1.w1) to reach 21 - 23.9 C (70 - 75 F) by the third week. (B338.1.w1)
    • Provide heat at one end of the box, with a smaller nest box at the heated end. (B196)
    • The box containing young rabbit kits may be placed in an airing cupboard, heated hospital cage or incubator. (B601.1.w1, B606.6.w6)
    • Providing heat at one end of the box only is preferable, since this allows the kits to crawl away from the heat if they get too warm. (W730.Dec08.w1)
  • Solid food may be provided in the unheated end of the box from an early age. (B196)

Milk replacer:

  • Milk of lagomorphs is very high in dry matter, high in fat and protein and low in carbohydrate. (P19.5.w5, B156.12.w12, B601.1.w1, P3.1987.w3):
    • Oryctolagus cuniculus - European rabbit: Energy 2.06 Kcal/ml. Solids 31.2%, of which fat 49%, protein 32%, carbohydrates 6%, ash 6%. (P19.1.w5)
  • Provide a milk replacer which matches rabbit milk as closely as possible. (B601.1.w1)
  • Make up any formula as the manufacture's instructions indicate. (B601.1.w1)
  • Suggested milk replacers include:
    • Esbilac (Pet Ag).(B151, J34.9.w1, P3.1987.w3)
    • KMR (Pet-Ag Inc, Illinois USA). (B156.12.w12)
    • Esbilac (Pet Ag) for Oryctolagus cuniculus - European rabbit . (D24)
    • Esbilac (Pet Ag), possibly with egg yolk to increase fat and protein, or with added Multi-Milk (Pet-Ag, Illinois). (B156.12.w12)
    • KMR or Esbilac (Pet Ag), possibly with added egg yolk (P19.1.w5), or Multi-Milk (Pet-Ag, Illinois).
    • Goats milk or lamb milk replacer. (D25)
    • Full cream goat's milk. (B601.1.w1)
    • Cat milk replacer. (B339.8.w8, B600.3.w3, B601.1.w1)
    • Low-sugar milk replacers designed for zoo animals. (B601.1.w1)
    • Evaporated milk diluted 50:50 with water, with egg yolk and corn syrup added. (B601.1.w1)
    • Note: 
      • Use boiled, cooled water to make up milk replacers; make up the feed just before using it. (B600.3.w3, B284.10.w10)
      • Addition of multivitamins and/or probiotics has been suggested; their usefulness is not proven. (B601.1.w1, B602.13.w13)

Utensils:

  • Rabbits can be fed using a syringe or from a feeding bottle (e.g. Catac feeding bottle) with a small teat. (W730.Dec08.w1)
    • Catac kitten/puppy bottle with small teat. (B151)
    • Syringe and small rubber teat. (D24)
    • A syringe with a small piece of tubing from a fluid giving set as a teat. (B600.3.w3)
    • Control of the rate of feeding is easier with smaller syringes, but these need filling more often as the kits get older. (W730.Dec08.w1)
  • Sterilise all utensils and equipment used for preparing feeds and feeding. (B600.3.w3, B601.1.w1, B284.10.w10)
    • Milton's Fluid can be used for sterilisation; rinse utensils thoroughly after sterilising before use. (W730.Dec08.w1)

Feeding Frequency:

Rabbit specific information:

  • Twice daily feeds only. (B151)
  • Neonate rabbits need three feeds per day. (B602.13.w13)
  • Feed when the kits become restless. (B600.3.w3)
  • Give three to five feeds a day. (B339.8.w8)
  • Three feeds a day may be needed to provide enough energy intake without giving excessive quantities at each feed. (B602.13.w13)
  • Three to four feeds a day, evenly spaced. (W730.Dec08.w1)

Feeding Technique: 

  • When feeding very small neonates it is vital that the feeding technique used provides milk at a sufficiently slow rate to minimise the risk of milk being inhaled with resultant aspiration pneumonia. (V.w26

Rabbit specific information:

  • Always feed the milk at body temperature. (B601.1.w1)
    • A mug-warmer in which the milk substitute can be kept at the right temperature during each feeding can be very useful. (W730.Dec08.w1)
    • Check the temperature of the milk by squeezing a drop on the back of your hand before starting feeding. (B601.1.w1, W730.Dec08.w1)
  • Have the kit on a towel on your lap. Hold it, with the thumb and second finger either side of the head and your first finger on the top of the head to stabilise it. (B601.1.w1)
    • Place one hand over the rabbit or cover the eyes with a hand or cloth; this appears to increase the infant's comfort level, improving feeding. (B338.1.w1)
    • Gently insert the tip of the syringe into the mouth behind the incisors. (B601.1.w1)
    • If using a syringe, give the milk (press the plunger) slowly to reduce the risk of aspiration. (B601.1.w1)
    • If feeding by syringe, stop the plunger between mouthfuls to allow the rabbit to swallow. (B601.1.w1)
  • Hold the kit in one hand and gently insert the tip of the syringe, or the teat, into the mouth. (W730.Dec08.w1)
  • Place the tip of the syringe (or the teat) into the corner of the infant's mouth. (B338.1.w1)
  • For neonates, holding the kit on its back simulates the natural position for nursing. (B600.3.w3)
  • Note: a healthy kit should suck the milk. (B600.3.w3)
  • There is a risk of choking if milk is squirted from the syringe into the rabbit's mouth. (B600.3.w3)
  • When feeding a litter, it may be useful to feed each kit, moving them into a separate box as they are fed, then repeat to ensure all have fed properly, ending with the whole litter back in their home cage. (W730.Dec08.w1)
  • For very weak kits, tube feeding may be needed. (B601.1.w1) See: 

Quantities:

General mammal information:

  • Energy intake (kilocalories per day) = 200 - 250 x weight (kg) 0.83. (based on daily milk energy intake in nursing infants at the time of peak lactation). (P19.1.w5, P3.1987.w3)

Rabbit specific information:

  • Avoid overfeeding. (B600.3.w3)
    • Underfeeding a little is better than overfeeding, which is liable to result in gastrointestinal upset. (B600.3.w3)
  • Feed approximately 10% body weight per day, divided between the number of feeds given. (J34.9.w1)
  • Energy requirement is approximately 2 x (70 x (bodyweight kg)0.75). For a 30 g neonate this would be 10.1 kcal per day. (B338.1.w1)
    • i.e. 2 x basal metabolic rate - see Food and Feeding for Mammals - Convalescent diets / Nutritional support
    • If the formula contains 2.01 kcal/mL, then (10.1/2.01) 5.02 mL (5 mL) per day would be needed for a 30 g neonate. (B338.1.w1) This would therefore need to be divided, giving 2.5 mL per feed at each of two feeds. (B338.1.w1)
  • It is useful to record the amount taken by each individual at each feed: a kit which takes less at one feed may then take more at the next feed. (B602.13.w13)
  • Daily intake of approximately: (B606.6.w6,W730.Dec08.w1)
    • Day 1: 2 mL.
    • Day 5: 12 mL.
    • Day 10: 15 mL.
    • Day 15: 22 mL.
    • Day 20: 27 mL.
    • Day 25: 30 mL
    • Day 30: 20 mL
    • Day 35: 5 ML or weaned. 
    • Note: this will vary considerably with breed and individual variation in size. Aim for a consistent increase in body weight. (W730.Dec08.w1)
  • The correct volume should leave the kits looking "full" and content. (W730.Dec08.w1)

Toileting/Elimination:

General mammal information:

  • Most infant mammals require gentle stimulation of the ano-genital area (using e.g. a damp cotton bud, damp cotton wool or damp soft paper towel) in order to urinate and defecate. 
  • This should be done when the animal is first presented and at every feed until voluntary elimination is observed.

Rabbit specific information:

  • The anogenital area should be stimulated following each feeding, using a warm wet cotton bud, cotton wool or cloth, to encourage urination and defecation. (B601.1.w1, B602.13.w13, B606.6.w6, B338.1.w1, W730.Dec08.w1)
  • This should be carried out for the first week in rabbits; after this time it is generally not required (B602.13.w13, B606.6.w6) for about 10 - 14 days old. (B601.1.w1)
  • It is not certain whether simulation of the urogenital area to encourage urination and defecation is required, but this stimulation should be given to hand-reared individuals, and cannot be harmful. (B284.10.w10, B600,3,w3)
  • Rabbit kits generally urinate soon after being fed, without requiring any stimulation. (B625.4.w4)

Weighing: 

General mammal information:

  • Weigh daily.
  • If more than one infant is being reared in a litter, the infants may be marked in a safe manner e.g. using small amount of a non-toxic coloured correction fluid such as Tippex in order to allow individual identification and monitoring.(V.w26)

Rabbit specific information:

  • The rabbit kit should be weighed daily to both monitor weight gain and allow calculation of the quantity of milk to be given. (B284.10.w10, B602.13.w13)
    • Accurate, regular weighing allows progress to be monitored objectively and can give an early warning of problems. (B284.10.w10)
    • Regular weighing is also needed to calculate the amount to be fed. (B338.1.w1)

Weaning:

  • Normally, rabbit kits can start digesting small amounts of solid food by about 15 days old. By day 20, most of their food intake can be solid food and they are using caecotrophy. Note: hand-reared infants may be a bit behind these timings, but should be nibbling hay by 21 days and weaned by 28 days. (B602.13.w13)

Feeding caecotrophs (transfaunation)

  • Feeding caecotrophs from a healthy adult rabbit provides the normal gut microbial population. (B284.10.w10, B600.3.w3, B601.1.w1)
  • Caecotrophs can be collected by placing an Elizabethan collar on the donor rabbit overnight so it cannot eat the caecotrophs as it produces them. (B284.10.w10, B601.1.w1)
  • Feed by offering them to kits once the eyes are opened and/or by mixing them with the milk formula. (B601.1.w1)
    • Caecotrophs can be scatted on hay and other food for the young rabbits to eat. (B284.10.w10)
  • Give caecotrophs during weaning. (B600.3.w3)
    • Kits should be given caecotrophs for 3 - 4 days before solid foods are offered. (B601.1.w1)
  • Probiotics can be given, e.g. in the drinking water, over the weaning period. (B606.6.w6)

Providing solid food

Various options have been suggested for weaning:
  • Offer hay, water and other food from two weeks old. (B618.21.w1)
  • Offer hay and fresh green food from about 18 days. (B600.3.w3)
  • Wean onto a selection of green leafy vegetables plus grass hay, provided from a few days after the eyes open. (B338.1.w1)
  • Expect the kits to eat hay from three weeks old. (B606.6.w6)
  • Offer only grass hay initially. (B339.8.w8, B601.1.w1)
    • Only offer concentrate foods and vegetables once the kit is eating hay well. (B339.8.w8, B601.1.w1)
    • Note: "An overload of carbohydrate and protein from too many concentrates causes adverse alterations in the caecal pH and microflora leading to serious digestive disturbances, diarrhoea and death." (B601.1.w1)
  • Offer hay initially, then also a good quality dry rabbit food. (B606.6.w6, W730.Dec08.w1)
    • Introduce new foods very gradually. (W730.Dec08.w1)
    • If changing between types of rabbit food, do so gradually over a period of two weeks. (W730.Dec08.w1)
  • By about four and a half weeks, solid food intake should be sufficient that milk feeds are not wanted. (W730.Dec08.w1)
    • If a kit still wants to be fed milk, reduce the milk feeds gradually. (W730.Dec08.w1)
  • Make sure water is available once solid food is offered. (W730.Dec08.w1)
    • Offer water in a bottle, at an appropriate height. (W730.Dec08.w1)

For wild Oryctolagus cuniculus - European rabbit:

  • Give daily access to grass outside in a wire-bottomed run (one inch i.e. 2.5 cm bottom mesh allows grazing through the mesh) which prevents access by vermin and predators and with protection from the weather from an early age. The side mesh should be small to ensure the kits cannot get their heads through. (B196)
  • Keep outside as soon as possible, in a secure run with netting no larger than one inch and a weatherproof box with dry bedding. The run should be moveable to provide constant access to fresh grass. (B224)
  • Start by providing Milupa (Milupa) baby foods; gradually reduce the amount of Milupa offered as other foods are eaten. (V.w27)
  • Start with solid food at 12-14 days old: provide chopped grass, grated carrot, diced apple, and reduce milk feed frequency. Eating independently by 16-17 days old, and should be on adult diet by 3 - 4 weeks old. (D24)
  • Green foods such as grass, dandelion and clover are suitable weaning foods. (B151)
  • Provide fresh green foods several times a day, including last thing at night. (B196)
  • Grazing or grass and clover may eaten after two weeks old; hay, prepared rabbit diets, oats, vegetables and fruits may be offered soon after this, consumption of milk is likely to cease by 35 days old. (B224)
  • Grass, clover, grain, wholemeal bread, apple and carrot may be used as weaning foods. (B196)
  • Milk may be thickened with baby cereal as weaning age approaches. Offer dry breakfast cereals initially and green leafy vegetables. A range of foods should be offered by the time the infant is hopping around its accommodation, e.g. green lettuce, green cabbage leaves, apple, locally available wild-growing green leafy plants. (B194)
  • Offer hay plus a wide variety of grasses and other native vegetation from three weeks old. (W730.Dec08.w1)
    • Give little or no commercial rabbit food. (W730.Dec08.w1)
    • Offer water in a shallow bowl rather than a sipper bottle. (W730.Dec08.w1)
  • Should be weaned by four weeks. (B199)
  • House weaned kits outside in a run with a hutch attached, and minimise human contact. (W730.Dec08.w1)
    • Take care to acclimatise the kits to outside temperatures gradually. (W730.Dec08.w1)

Release:

  • Release wild rabbits as soon as possible: once the orphan is feeding itself fully. (B194, B196, B199)
  • Kits are ready for release when they are weaned, acclimatised to outside temperatures, and running to hide from human caretakers. (W730.Dec08.w1)
  • See: Release of Casualty Rabbits and Hares
Appropriate Use (?)
  • Wild animals should not be taken for hand rearing unless they are definitely orphaned or abandoned, injured/visibly unwell, or in immediate danger.
  • Juvenile rabbits are commonly seen alone at a young age when first emerging from the burrow (at about the age of weaning), and may be brought in by a cat or dog at this age. Such rabbits do not require hand-rearing and may be released after appropriate treatment for shock or injuries.
Notes
  • An ordinary outdoor thermometer may be used to indicate the temperature in the container used to house the orphan. (B194)
  • Routine records should be maintained of daily weight, times of each feed, quantities of milk consumed, urine/faeces production and general condition/demeanour. Such records provide an objective means of assessing progress and provide useful data for improving rearing methods. (B602.13.w13, V.w5)
  • It may be appropriate to vaccinate rabbits against Myxomatosis prior to release. (V.w26)
  • Vaccination against both Myxomatosis and Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease is advisable prior to release of wild rabbits. (B284.10.w10)
Complications/ Limitations / Risk
  • Rabbits may be difficult to hand-rear. (B156.12.w12, D24)
  • It is particularly difficult to rear very young rabbit kits. (W730.Dec08.w1)
  • The main, and often fatal, problems are Aspiration Pneumonia following inhalation of milk formula, and diarrhoea due to failure to develop the proper gut flora, followed by overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria causing diarrhoea. (B284.10.w10, B601.1.w1, W730.Dec08.w1) See:
  • Care should be taken to minimise stress up to weaning and in the post-weaning period, as recently weaned hand-reared kits are more prone to development of post-weaning enteritis problems such as Mucoid Enteropathy in Rabbits.  (W730.Dec08.w1)
  • Risk of injury due to severe flight reaction when transferred to a larger enclosure after weaning. (J23.35.w2)
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers Milk formula:
  • KMR (Pet-Ag Inc, Illinois USA).
  • Esbilac (Pet Ag, Kruus UK Ltd., Unit 17, Moor Lane Industrial Estate, Sherburn in Elmet, North Yorkshire, LS25 6ES) (PetAg Inc, Illinois, USA).
  • Welpi (Hoechst UK ltd., PO Box 18, Hounslow, Middlesex TW4 6JH). Available from pet stores.
  • Multi-Milk (Pet-Ag Inc., Illinois, USA).
  • Abidec multi-vitamin drops (Parke-Davis, Pontypool, Gwent, UK. Available from chemists).
  • Milupa (Milupa, White Horse Business Park, Trowbridge, WILTS BA14 0XB): from supermarkets, chemists etc.

Utensils

  • 1 mL and 2 mL syringes for feeding.
    • Replace syringes as or before the plunger starts to stick in the barrel, to avoid sudden floods of milk into the mouth. (V.w5)
  • Catac bottle and small teats. 
Expertise level / Ease of Use
  • Not easy to hand-rear. If the carer does not have experience with these species advice should be sought from experienced rehabilitators and other people with expertise with these species. 
  • Considerable time commitment involved.
  • Manual dexterity is important for caring for these small individuals.
  • Requires empathy, observation skills and the ability to "read" the animals' body language.
  • Experience with hand-rearing is useful and is likely to greatly increase the success rate.
Cost/ Availability
  • Products and equipment all widely available, not particularly expensive.
Legal and Ethical Considerations
  • Hand-rearing should not be started unless the carer is prepared to give the time and effort required for rearing to release, or to ensure that appropriate care will be continued through to release.
  • For free-living individuals, consider whether hand-rearing is the best option for the individual compared to leaving it in the wild.
  • Consider whether euthanasia is a more humane/kinder option for the individual than attempting hand-rearing.
  • In the UK, an offence may be committed under the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960 Section 1 if a released animal does not have a reasonable chance of survival (i.e. a chance similar to its non-rehabilitated peers). It is an offence under this Act for a person having control or charge of an animal to abandon it permanently or otherwise in circumstances likely to cause unnecessary suffering. This may include release at an unsuitable site, in the wrong territory, unfit, not having learned to hunt, at the wrong time of year etc. (J35.147.w1, B156.21.w21, B223, W5.Jan01)
Author Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee Tiffany Blackett BVetMed MRCVS (V.w44)
References

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